Theme of Pastoralism in Shakespeare’s as You Like It

William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ is probably one of the most famous pastoral comedies of all times. Written around 1599 and published in 1623, its plot was derived from Thomas Lodge’s pastoral romance ‘Rosalynde’. But what is interesting about this play is how Shakespeare, using the features and tropes of a pastoral comedy, undercuts the idea of the pastoral. The pastoral, as a genre, can be said to have had its beginnings with Theocritus’ ‘Idylls’. Other notable works in this genre are Virgil’s ‘Eclogues’ and Longus’ ‘Daphnis and Chloe’. Artificiality and lack of realism are the chief characteristics of this tradition.
When the Elizabethans wrote in this tradition, they more or less followed the set conventions. The shepherds with which they peopled their rural landscape were metaphors for amorous lovers, scholar-poets and aristocrats in exile. These poets gave the primacy to courtiers who led a shepherd-like existence or merely treated the rural environment as a background to the amours of shepherds and shepherdesses who in their love-behaviour resembled the refined noble-men of the court. ‘As You Like It’ also has these love-lorn figures in characters such as Silvius and Phebe.
Yet, it can be clearly seen from their marginalized status in the play that Shakespeare has clearly departed from the convention of ‘pastoralisation’ of the courtly people. 1. The people in Shakespeare’s pastoral are not the dainty shepherds and shepherdesses of the golden world. They are uneducated, plain-spoken, not much concerned with romance, poetry and etiquette. The reason for this far-away-from-reality portrayal of the country people in pastoral romances and poetry was the fact that the authors/poets were a part of a class belonging to the town and court.

Their anxieties and pre-occupations with their own socio-politico-economic conditions necessitated the construction of an idyllic space, free from all the troubles and tensions. And it was to fulfil this need to escape that they created an almost Eden-like rural world. The pastoral, therefore, became one of the literary forms best suited for an expression of disgust with the court and an admiration for the ‘simple pleasures’ of the country. 2. “They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and many a merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England.
They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world”, says Charles in Act 1, Scene 1 of the play. This sure raises our expectations about the Forest of Arden as a place where life is like a never-ending holiday. In Act 2, Scene 1, Duke Senior also describes the Forest as a place where he finds “good in everything” and compares it to the Garden of Eden. But in the very same dialogue, he refers to the “icy fang/ And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind”. This brings to our notice the less-than-perfect nature of life in Arden.
Even when away from the strifes of courtly life, the courtiers and the duke have to bear the “penalty of Adam”. Each of the character that enters the Forest of Arden considers it as a refuge from the iniquity, restriction, oppression and corruption of the life at court. Rosalind and Celia run away from the court to escape the patriarchal domination of the tyrant Duke Frederick. Orlando and Adam come to the Forest in search of a new life away from the injustice meted out to him by his own brother. Duke Senior and his courtiers remain in the Forest as exiles, having been wronged at the hands of Duke Frederick.
But even here Shakespeare inverts this notion by giving each one of them their share of trials and tribulations. It certainly is not an escape into a utopian world as we would like it to be. Each of them reaches the Forest in a state of physical exhaustion and it is not the end of their troubles, what with hunger, extreme weather conditions and struggle for survival staring them in the face. The play also deals with the idea of old world-new world order and uses pastoral as a medium to resolve serious socio-political problems.
The society at this point in time was in a state of flux and the aristocracy came to be divided into two categories – One that still set much store by the notions of blood lineage, loyalty and a golden, feudal society where everyone knows his place and the other that adopted the Machiavellian idea of rampant individualism and gain of power for selfish purposes. Shakespeare presents this split in the society in terms of familial conflict between Oliver and Orlando & Duke Senior and Duke Frederick.
In denying Orlando his share in his fathers’ fortune and mistreating Adam, Oliver violates the moral law of the traditional order which required the lord to fulfil the patriarchal commitment of ensuring a harmonious social order on his estate. Sir Rowland de Boys is depicted as the epitome of the ideal lord. By virtue of being morally akin to his father, Orlando is loved by everyone. He embodies traditional values of the old feudal order, “the antique world”. Oliver, being all that his father was not is representative of the new world order.
Duke Frederick, similarly, is put in the same moral category when he says, “The world esteemed [Sir Rowland] honourable/But I did find him still mine enemy. ” Not only this, he is an anomaly in the law of primogeniture because he overthrows the rightful inheritor, Duke Senior, who also loves Sir Rowland and thus we hold him in the same light as Orlando. Oliver violates moral law, Duke Frederick violates social law. It is in the Forest of Aden that this violation is corrected and we see the ultimate re-uniting of the Orlando and Oliver when the wronged younger brother saves the life of the very elder brother who had plotted to kill him.
And it is after entering the Forest that Duke Frederick realises his folly in usurping the rightful position of his brother and Duke Senior is thus reinstated as the king. The Forest, more importantly the idea of countryside, then works as a place which provides resolution to the conflicts and restores harmony. There is a constant contrast being drawn between the court and the country in the play which undoubtedly presents the country as a better and superior alternative.
The move by the characters into the Forest of Arden is seen as a retreat into nature where they are physically and spiritually rejuvenated. It is also a source of learning for the Duke Senior, for he “Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones, and good in everything”. Their stay in the Forest re-instils a sense of confidence in them and they also acquire a degree of self-knowledge. But in spite of this idealization of the country we do not see even one character that completely identifies with it.
The pastoral is just a temporary refuge and never a permanent haven. As soon as the familial and social conflicts are resolved, the inhabitants leave the place about which they had eulogised. In Act 1, Scene 1, talking to Adam about Oliver’s unjust behaviour towards him, Orlando describes his gentility against the coarseness of the country people. In saying “You have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities”, Orlando gives vent to an inherent prejudice against the country folks as uncivilized people.
Even when in the Forest, Orlando thinks of the country dwellers as incapable of any civility and the prejudice in him remains intact when he says “I thought that all things had been savage here”. Duke Senior refers to his days at court as “better days” with an evident sense of nostalgia in the same scene and draws a contrast between the orderly life at court and the almost anarchical existence in the Forest when he recalls the “holy bell [that] knolled to church/ And [when he] sat at good men’s feasts”. This distinction between the court and country is brought out most tellingly in the characters of Touchstone and Corin.
Touchstone’s description of himself as a courtier not only parodies the courtiers and their ways but also provides a contrast with the simplicity of Corin, representative of the rural fraternity. We notice a misplaced sense of elitism and superiority seeping in in the behaviour of Touchstone as soon as he enters the Forest when he calls out to Corin as “you clown” in Act 2, Scene 5 and refers to himself as his “betters”. The conversation between the two in Act 3, Scene 2 shows the yawning fissures that separated the two classes and precluded any possibility of a democratic exchange of ideas. 3.
Touchstone’s answer to Corin’s inquiry about his feelings for shepherd life underlines the conventions of the pastoral life-“ Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now, in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. ” Corin himself continues this realistic tone when he points out the obvious differences between life in the court and life in the country.
The best truce between the two diametrically opposite worlds comes in Corin’s sagacious analysis-“ Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court” thus establishing that one place is not necessarily better than the other, just different. The relationship that the court people establish with the Forest and the forest-dwellers is almost exploitative in nature. Despite being away from the court physically, they can never really leave behind the court mannerisms and prejudices.
We see a new court order being established in the Forest. The Duke and his courtiers are refugees in the forest, but still they become tyrants and usurpers of the place rightfully belonging to the inhabitants. They kill the animals, the natives i. e. , for their own convenience and pleasure. Broken feudal loyalties are strengthened when Duke Sr. meets Orlando and recognises him to be the son of his favourite, Sir Rowland. We see the creation of a social hierarchy when Rosalind and Celia, by virtue of their socio-economic position in the society, enter into a business arrangement’ with Corin and offer to buy his land. Although, he is a native of the Forest and should be economically prosperous, going by the conventions of the pastoral, we are informed that he does not even “shear the fleeces [he] graze[s]” and is servant to a “churlish master”. Thus unlike the traditional pastoral relationship between the courtier and shepherds which is that of good-natured equality, in Shakespeare’s play the shepherd can only become a host to the ladies by becoming their servant. . Some critics have also read this usurpation of the rights of the natives as a critique of the systemic enclosure of the commons in 17th century England. As mentioned earlier, the retreat into the Forest is not an escape into a utopian world. Rather than simply being an idyllic, innocent site to escape to, Arden is constructed as a neutral space where people are allowed to be themselves, free to create alternate identities and perhaps this is from where the title of the play, ‘As You Like It’, derives. 5.
Each character that enters the Forest projects his own personality on to it. So while Duke Sr finds it to be “idyllic golden world”, almost Eden-like, Orlando calls it “desert inaccessible”. Rosalind and Celia meet a pleasant sheepcote “fenced with olive trees” on entering the Forest while Oliver is greeted by a snake with drawn fangs and a lioness ready to kill him. So a retreat into Arden can be seen as a metaphor for the retreat into ones soul. It becomes the mirror of their minds, reflecting their thoughts onto their situations.
Rosalind and Celia escape the unpleasant and restricted atmosphere of the court and don new identities in the Forest. While Celia chooses the name Aliena, representative of her state of mind, Rosalind forges an altogether new identity for herself by choosing to dress up like a man as Ganymede. By doing this, Rosalind draws upon the latent courage and resilience of her character. She becomes a working woman, independent of all male control, something which the orderly and patriarchal world of the court would not have permitted.
A subversion of the gender stereotypes is also happening in the relationship of Orlando and Rosalind in the Forest where Orlando roams about looking for her and inscribing eulogies as proof of his love for Rosalind on tree barks and she tests his love in the garb of Ganymede. Orlando, whom we had seen as a man who knows his worth and potential but is unable to actualise it due to his situation in society, transforms into a most ardent lover as he is given the freedom to express his love. The loyal courtier in him is accorded its true worth when Duke Sr recognises him as the son of Sir Rowland de Boys.
Thus the entry into Forest can also be seen as a symbolic quest to determine one’s identity. In so far as all the action of the play takes place in the Forest of Arden, it is of prime importance. But as we have noticed, the retreat into Arden is not a permanent move on the part of the court dwellers. The stay in the Forest is a means to and not the end itself, the end being resolution of all social and familial conflicts. And Shakespeare very well uses the pastoral tradition to achieve this resolution.

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